What makes people lose empathy

Empathy: I feel what you feel

Everyone knows the feeling: If someone hits their finger with a hammer or leaps into the air for joy, we can clearly relate to that. We suffer and we are happy too. We feel what the other is feeling. Empathy can be reduced to this denominator. Even if we do not physically feel the pain of others, just observing them jumps to regions in the brain that are also active in the person concerned, says Claus Lamm from the University of Vienna. This is shown by his studies with test persons whose brain activity he has observed in the magnetic resonance tomograph (MRI).

The fact that we can empathize with others or empathize with them has many advantages. From an evolutionary point of view, these feelings motivate social action such as helping and cooperation, says Lamm. We commonly use the terms empathy and compassion synonymously. But experts understand by compassion that we not only share negative feelings, but also take part in them and want to help out of understanding and concern.

We have the capacities for empathy and compassion in our genes. According to a comprehensive study, their influence only accounts for about ten percent, as researchers from the University of Cambridge recently published in a specialist journal Translational Psychiatry wrote. Upbringing, socialization and experiences are far more formative. As early as the age of two, children begin to take an interest and, for example, comfort others. Positive experiences with empathy and compassion reinforce action driven by these feelings. "In the case of positive emotions, I look for situations that evoke them. Compassion for someone who is grieving can also motivate me to help that person. If I can alleviate his or her grief, that is associated with a positive feeling for me," explains Lamm.

Crucial difference

The difference between empathy and compassion can be crucial and can be trained. For example, if doctors and nurses increasingly empathized with the suffering of their patients, they might not be able to act at all. Only when doctors disengage themselves from overly empathizing can they help without blockages or burnout. Researchers working with Mira Preis in Göttingen were able to demonstrate this familiarization with the expression of pain with MRI examinations. Interestingly enough, the medical professionals do not lose the ability to correctly assess the degree of pain.

Compassion can also be trained with meditation exercises, as scientists working with Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences in Leipzig have discovered. Their conclusion: This not only avoids burnout among doctors and teachers, it also reduces unhealthy stress reactions such as high cortisol levels, which results in greater understanding.

Bitter cold experiment

However, numerous factors influence empathy and compassion. We experience these feelings more easily and quickly towards people who are similar to us. Ed O'Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth from the University of Michigan provided vivid evidence of this. The researchers chose a bitterly cold winter day for their experiment. They wanted to find out how well students could empathize with a fictional hiker. He got lost in winter weather and had neither water, food, nor additional warm clothes with him. 60 students at a bus stop and another 60 in the warm university library were given a short story to read about the unlucky person. Both groups were then asked to assess whether they thought he was more likely to be hungry, thirsty or the cold, and also indicate which of these problems affected them most.

One would have expected that the freezing students would consistently consider the cold to be the greatest problem. Your empathy for it actually depended on another factor. Namely, how much the Wanderer looked like them. More precisely, whether he shared her political opinion. Because the researchers had distributed two different versions of the text without revealing this. In one, the wanderer was a democrat and for equality between same-sex couples. In the other, he was a Republican and against those rights. 94 percent of those who agreed with his political opinion at the frosty bus stop thought the cold was his biggest problem. However, if they did not share his attitude, their empathy for the cold outside and inside waned and hardly differed (55 versus 63 percent).

When empathy is easier

Apparently, empathy is easier for us even when we believe that people are not to blame for their health problems or in an emergency. As soon as we think that the problem could have been avoided by making other decisions, compassion quickly goes down, says Grit Hein from the University of Würzburg. This could explain the convictions of drug addicts, but also the overweight and homeless. "It can go so far that certain groups are even denied human characteristics and competencies," adds Hein.

At the University of Zurich, she investigated whether the rejection of other groups can be reduced through positive experiences and more empathy can be developed for them. In an experiment, she wanted to find out how Swiss test subjects react when other test subjects - their own compatriots or those from the Balkan states, which form a large minority group in Switzerland - prevent suffering pain. The test subjects were given painful hand stimuli. But they knew that someone would potentially pay money to keep them from suffering. They could tell from the name where the helper came from. Just a few helpful immigrants were enough to increase the initially low level of empathy - measured by neurons - not only for this person, but for their group.

Hein, who is now doing research at the University of Würzburg, emphasizes, however, that empathy needs a permanent foundation of "trust and a feeling of security". "If this trust is abused, empathy can quickly end." (Veronika Szentpétery-Kessler, March 25, 2018)


More on the focus on feelings: